Hundreds of coffins tumbled from their resting place in north-west Italy when a landslide destabilised a 100-year-old cliffside cemetery on Monday.
Video showed emergency workers in boats searching for the estimated 200 coffins in the waters off Camogli, near Genoa.
Two chapels were also swept on to the rocks below the graveyard.
The village mayor told media it was an “unimaginable catastrophe” in an area prone to cliff collapse.
The cemetery walls had rows of coffins entombed in the traditional Italian style. Workers close by captured footage of the moment the walls began to shake and crack.
Seconds later, they broke apart and crashed down into the Ligurian sea beneath the fishing village.
Pictures show several coffins floating in muddied waters.
#Camogli: questa mattina insulti al sindaco per non aver previsto il crollo. Erano state notate crepe profonde e si udivano rumori sinistri. Alcuni lavori erano stati già avviati ed erano presenti anche reti di protezione che però non sono state sufficienti. pic.twitter.com/jMg56Zba0V
— Babboleo News (@BabboleoNews) February 23, 2021
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“This type of collapse that happened today is very hard to detect or to predict,” Francesco Olivari, the mayor of Camogli, told CNN.
Local workers had noticed cracks in the cliffs and realised there was a risk of collapse in the days before, authorities explained.
“The area had also been cordoned off because in the the last few days there had been strange creaking sounds,” Camogli councillor Tino Revello told Italian news agency Ansa.
Divers from the fire brigade, coast guard boats and firefighters have been assisting in the search for the remains of the cemetery.
Around 10 of the estimated 200 coffins had been recovered, said regional civil protection assessor Giacomo Giampedrone.
He added that officials blocked the area below the cemetery after the landslide to keep the coffins from floating out to sea.